The Rise of Automotive UX


Lillian Xiao

February 12, 2019 | 5 min read

Last Updated: Nov 17, 2021

A guest post by Lillian Xiao, a user experience designer for a large European automaker.

Automakers are designing the next generation of cars with user experience (UX) at the forefront. The merging of physical and digital—driven by electrification, connectivity, self-driving technology, and fluid ownership models—will give rise to unprecedented user experiences. The most successful automakers will bring technologies and services together in ways that are usable and delightful for the end customer.

In the future, cars will resemble our smartphones more than they’ll resemble the cars that we know today—machines composed of gears, fluids, and thousands of moving parts. Instead, cars will be connected devices on wheels, part of a large, complex network of people, devices, and infrastructure. Automakers are already bracing for this transition, where digital blends with the physical, and user experience will become increasingly important to help people navigate the world.


Industry 4.0: A blend of digital and physical

The physical world around us will become more digital and connected in what experts are calling the 4th industrial revolution, or industry 4.0. Cars are just one example of how this transformation is taking place. We can measure this by looking at how many lines of code cars have today. Two decades ago, cars had on average 1 million lines of code. Today, cars have 100 million lines of code. Experts predict that before long, cars will have at least 200 million lines of code.

For automakers, the increasingly digital framework poses new challenges. A major challenge for established automakers is bridging two vastly different production cycles from the automotive and software domains. Today, a car can take anywhere from 2 to 5 years to go from concept to production. However, software development cycles are fast and iterative, constantly introducing new features and replacing old features that no longer meet user needs.

The discrepancy is most obvious in today’s in-car infotainment systems. User interfaces come in and out of fashion quickly, which means that digital infotainment systems can become outdated by the time cars are introduced to market. The result is that infotainment systems are routinely ranked as the least satisfying feature for car owners. Among other things, this discrepancy reflects the challenges that large automotive companies—also known as original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)—face in transitioning to a new era of mobility.


Automotive UX

For the automotive industry, new technology paves the way for new models of mobility. While software competence is the necessary first step, mobility will eventually be about usability, trust, and delight. UX may become the differentiating factor for cars in the future.

User experience has its origins in the software industry. At its core, UX is about designing solutions that meet human needs, often through the medium of technology. Oftentimes, technological solutions are introduced to a market, only for its creators to discover that there’s a mismatch in the market, product, or simply wrong timing.

In this way, UX provides a user-centered approach, as well as a set of practices, for automakers to test new concepts and solutions across a blend of new digital, physical, and service offerings.


How can automakers take a user-centered approach to fuel innovation in the auto industry? Below, I explore four areas of near-term growth—based largely on public discussion around these topics—and look briefly at how UX can help automakers identify opportunities for innovation.

1. Electric cars become more affordable

As battery components become cheaper, electric vehicles (EVs) will become more affordable. Bloomberg predicts that in 2025, worldwide EV sales will reach 11 million, and in 2030, EV sales will reach 30 million.


The experience of driving an EV is—or perhaps should be—considerably different than driving a car with an internal combustible engine (ICE). Unlike gas-powered cars, many EVs have single-pedal driving (without the need to switch gears), faster acceleration, and simpler car maintenance (without the upkeep of a complex system of gears and moving parts).

In reality, technology never advances in isolation, which means that entire ecosystems will emerge around EVs. Vehicle charging infrastructure is just one example of this. It takes much longer to charge an EV than to fuel a gas-powered car, which creates opportunities to help drivers make use of this idle time. UX can help us understand things like where drivers prefer to charge their cars, and what drivers want to do while their cars are charging. Today, I see Tesla owners waiting in their cars at the edge of shopping mall parking lots. As EVs gain wider adopting, the experience of charging will undoubtedly improve from what it is today.


2. Cars become connected digital platforms

A recent consumer report revealed that drivers want their cars to provide the same communication and entertainment capabilities as their phones. Automakers are responding by introducing concepts for large touchscreens, voice recognition, gesture recognition, and heads-up displays to assist drivers in accessing content while driving.

Infotainment systems—the host of in-car features that include music, navigation, and phone integration—has a long history dating back to the first in-car radio in the 1930s. From there, navigation systems were introduced in the 1980s, and the first hard drives and Bluetooth systems were introduced in the 2000s. Recent focus has been on 5G, which many anticipate will provide high-speed mobile connectivity for networked devices in the future.

Byton Interior; Source: Sean O’Kane, The Verge


3.  Cars begin to drive themselves

Self-driving technology is already embedded in today’s cars in the form of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Features like adaptive cruise control (on freeways) and automatic parking can help drivers become more accustomed to the idea of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.

Automakers can take these opportunities to educate consumers about the capabilities of autonomous technology, and to design experiences that prioritize trust and safety. A recent AAA study revealed that at least 2 out of 3 drivers using ADAS features report trusting the technology in their cars. Positive experiences can play an important cultural role in helping consumers become more comfortable with self-driving technology.

Tesla Autopilot; Source: Electrek


4.  Car ownership becomes more fluid

Car ownership has taken on many forms in recent years. Vehicle owners can make a living, or earn extra cash, by using their cars to drive people and goods around. Peer-to-peer platforms like Turo and Getaround allow car owners to rent out their vehicles, and ZipCar allows members to rent from its fleets of cars in half-hour increments. These shared mobility options help car owners and consumers determine the mobility models that work best for them in their own lives.

UX can play a central role in helping automakers understand the user journeys related to different models of shared mobility. For example, understanding a rider’s journey, from booking a ride to leaving the car, can fuel innovation at different steps along the way. With shared mobility, there’s a clear need for innovative experiences that cater to a growing demographic of people who are less interested in owning and driving a car.


Looking to the future & implications for UX

If we assume that technology continues to progress in these four areas—as many automakers and experts believe today—then before we know it, the world may begin to look very different.

RethinkX, an independent think tank, predicts that by 2030, “95% of U.S. passenger miles traveled will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals, in a new business model called ‘transport-as-a-service’ (TaaS).”

This seems to reflect what many in the automotive industry are bracing for—conversion to an electric autonomous future. In this future scenario, it may be more practical to be driven than to drive yourself.

RethinkX analysis based on U.S. Department of Transportation data; Source: RethinkX


If these assumptions play out, then UX will play a key role in helping companies provide enjoyable, meaningful, and personalized experiences that merge the digital and physical.

Design Council, an independent charity and advisor to the UK government on design, predicts:

“There will be far more use-appropriate products as we go into the future. You will have less of the kind of car that does everything for everyone, and you’ll have more specific-use vehicles out there. Your day-to-day commute may be answered by the hire car in the city, which isn’t yours; it’s cleaned regularly, it’s there when you need it and it’s just functional. Which means that the car I choose to buy is the car that suits my other needs, whether that’s for family, recreation or holidays.”

The further we look into the future, the more difficult it is to predict user needs. However, it’s clear that UX will become increasingly important for the auto industry moving forward.

If you want to learn more about building future-proof digital experiences for the auto sector, click here.